activism

LGBTQ activist on the trauma of the AIDS era and the hope of “lived equality”

GRAND JUNCTION, CO – When Heidi Hess moved from her hometown of Omaha to Dallas in the 1980s, at the height of the terrible AIDS epidemic, she brought with her not just the usual belongings of a twentysomething. Among the boxes of clothes and other personal items, she carried 14 boxes of cremated remains.

“In Omaha there was one funeral home that would take bodies of people who had died of AIDS,” she recalled in a recent phone interview from her home in Grand Junction. “And they would only take them after dark, and they would only do cremations.”

Hess had been an active volunteer with the local AIDS community. All of the cremated remains were those of friends whom she had cared for from the time they first fell ill, through their hospitalizations, until they succumbed to the disease.

“I don’t know how many families I had called [to tell them] that their son had died. And the answers were horrific to me.”

Hess came out to her parents early in life, and unlike so many of her friends’ own experiences, that moment was uneventful. Her parents had known for a long time and were relieved that “you figured this out already.”

Her friends had no such support, at least not from their own parents.

“The responses were from, ‘I don’t have a son’, since they disowned their son, to ‘No, we didn’t want their cremains.'”

So Hess did what she felt any good person would do when their friends whom they loved died with no family to grieve or even acknowledge them. She carefully packed up all 14 boxes of cremated remains and took them with her to her new home.

Eventually she found a funeral home in Dallas that not only would take the remains for burial with a proper marker, but would also host a service.

“I finally let go of the cremains.”

The trauma of AIDS in the age of Covid

Hess lived through the dark, tragic years of the AIDS epidemic and watched so many of her dearest friends die that she started regularly reading the obituaries to check which of her friends had passed away. Although having AIDS doesn’t quite have the stigma it once had, when people could be fired or ostracized from family and friends simply for being gay, Hess remains angry at all the unavoidable losses, the overwhelming grief and shock of seeing an entire generation of “elders” in the LGBTQ community essentially wiped out due to discrimination and government inaction.

The current Covid epidemic has only exacerbated that lingering sense of trauma.

“Fighting through AIDS was tremendously difficult,” Hess said. “Those of us old enough to have lived through it, there’s this kind of unspoken — something we carry around with us — a feeling of obligation that younger generations know how bad that was.”

Hess is on the board of directors of Colorado West Pride (CWP), which made the decision to cancel this month’s local Pride festival due to current Mesa County health guidelines on large gatherings and continued concern over alarmingly high transmission rates around the country. She’s grateful that, unlike in the early years of the AIDS crisis, there is recognition of the severity of the current pandemic and a massive government effort at all levels to minimize transmission, ensure prompt medical care for all those affected, and find a vaccine or cure.

But there is also anger. Lots of it.

“Since Covid happened, with the pandemic, for some of us this is really hard. It’s fantastic that there is like a coordinated — sometimes — [response] or at least a recognition of a disease, and there’s a task force, and we’re doing something about it. Whether you agree with it or not, or if it’s good or not, at least there’s conversations. There’s all this discussion about how to keep people safe.”

The virus’ relentless march around the world and its indiscriminate killing of people of all ages, races, genders, and even socioeconomic status reminds Hess of how AIDS ravaged entire communities, but with a notable difference.

“For me, that’s white dudes are dying, cisgender people are dying, so now we have to pay attention to [the pandemic]. And it makes me angry because we lost a generation of elders. Most of my elders [were] gay men I knew. When I came out and had created community for young LGTBQ people are gone. And so it’s like Covid has been difficult for all the reasons that a pandemic has been difficult, but it’s also been difficult because I’m a little angry about it.”

Legislative and lived equality

Hess, who also works part-time as the Western Slope field organizer for One Colorado in addition to her full-time job with a tech company, moved to Grand Junction about 10 years ago, and soon after became actively involved in the local LGBTQ community.

Although there had been local Pride events for years, most events were “low-key.” Hess and a small group of dedicated community volunteers worked tirelessly to build awareness and add more events. Now, Pride Fest is a multi-day event every year (except for 2020) that’s a highlight on the local events calendar and includes a Sunday parade down Main Street. In addition, CWP hosts other events such as an LGBTQ “Rainbow” prom and back to school events for college students. They’ve also partnered with other organizations such as The House, a local nonprofit group that provides services, including short-term housing, to homeless youths.

Hess is happy and rightfully proud of all that has changed in the Grand Valley and elsewhere. The Black Lives Matter activism that has bubbled up in the the area, along with national changes that have expanded our country’s acceptance of LGBTQ rights, gives her even more reason to hope for a better future.

She pointed to the recent landmark decision by the Supreme Court to define “sex” to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Hess said that this decision is a “gamechanger” that’s even more significant than the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.

“This decision only impacted the employment clause of the [1964] Civil Rights Act, but it’s the same language that’s used to provide civil rights on housing and public accommodations. That’s what’s so gamechanging about it. That’s why it’s bigger than marriage. While you had the right to get married in Texas [for example], you still didn’t have the right to not lose your job because you got married. […] Now you can get married and you still can’t get fired. Now you can keep your livelihood.”

Hess said that, with Black Lives Matter activists demanding equality, other groups who have also endured being treated as “an Other in this country” recognize the power of speaking up and demanding recognition of their civil and human rights as well. She cautioned that “it will take decades to break down that system,” though.

“Legislating all of that is very, very difficult, but [in many ways] it’s also fairly easy. It’s very difficult to do because it takes a lot of money and planning and strategy, but it’s not like just because the governor signed this paper, suddenly everything changes. It doesn’t work that way. And that’s one of the things we fight at CWP at the forefront in the Grand Valley.”

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